While the Big Publishers Snooze, Little Indie Studios Are Changing the Face of Wii U

by Menashe


As I was working on my upcoming article, 70+ Upcoming Wii U Games We’re Excited For, I started reaching out to developers for quotes and new information on their upcoming games. Unsurprising, most of the big publishers kept their lips shut tight. However, many of the famous indie developers were very forthcoming and happy to contribute to the feature. The writing of the article became something of an organic, living process as it gave birth to a second idea which came from my amazement at the magnitude indies were embracing and taking advantage of the Wii U. I decided then and there to try and capture in words something of this indie force that has begun to coalesce on the Wii U.

Executives Make All the Creative Decisions in the “Big” Industry

Publishers on Wii U

For shame! There’s no question that big publishers like EA and Activision see the potential of the Wii U to enhance and expand gameplay for traditional gamers that have tired of the same old first-person shooters and cliches. But that doesn’t mean they care enough to do something about it. As long as there isn’t a big install base within three months of a system’s launch they cancel their projects or decide there isn’t enough of a penetration rate to warrant a port. Maybe later, the businessmen in suits conclude, when the Wii U has amassed two years of consumers, then it will be worth it to start porting their games. The creative minds and talented developers don’t get a say in the matter, even if they’re excited to work with the Wii U. As long as it doesn’t add up on paper in the here-and-now, the executives who run the company won’t allow it to pass.

Of course, this is a catch twenty-two. If you don’t support a new system with great games, how will it ever expand enough to become a lucrative market for you in the future? Most gaming systems are not massive markets from the get-go. It takes time until the new market of customers is solidified. In the meantime, it’s up to Nintendo to do it alone and build up a big enough user-base with their own exciting games until the system has become widespread enough to capture the attention of the big-publishers. It’s all about surviving through the long haul, not winning a few sales in the short-term.

A Long-term Build-up of Sales is More Important than Launch Sales

An increase in sales momentum over time matters a lot more...

An increase in sales momentum over time matters a lot more…

Look at the success of systems like the DS, 3DS and PS3. Their winning efforts, their late bloom, depended upon their staying power. Once they’d proven they were capable of surviving long enough, developers eventually saw the market as large enough to warrant their efforts. Meanwhile, the Wii saw incredible success at the beginning, but sales steadily declined as it went on. You can say that long-term momentum is a lot more important to a consoles health than its initial launch year. Sometimes that momentum comes from bringing out a handful of AAA titles in the holiday season while other times it can come from a price drop or an appealing bundle. The best momentum of all comes from the steady rise of quality in the library of games over time as the price of the system begins to drop.

The Wii U has this same predicament; it’s only natural to have small sales at the beginning when only a handful of people (3 million+ , cough, cough) own the system. But, this concept of short-term sales versus long-term sales is for a whole other article. What I really wanted to focus on in this “rant” is that Nintendo is not doing this alone. There are developers who are taking the system seriously and discovering brilliant ways to use the GamePad in innovative and creative manners. These are the same people that have been at the forefront of experimentation and innovation in the industry for a few years now. These are indie developers.

Indies are Taking Up an Increasingly Large Space in the Industry

indie game characters

While you weren’t looking, indies have practically taken over the industry. We’ve come a long way since Pixel (Daisuke Amaya) showed the world that you don’t need a massive 100-person studio to create an epic game. All it takes is one skilled fellow to create a Cave Story, a game that hearkens back to Super Metroid and other Metroidvanias filled with atmosphere and personality. These days, indie development studios number in the thousands and have created some of the industry’s most popular and well-received games, such as Minecraft and Amnesia. (If you like indie games, I think you’ll appreciate this list of the 60 Best Indie Games of All Time that I just made in this thread.) Guess what? Indies no longer just refer to people living out of a garage in their parents houses, but they now have become a first choice for many developers. Yes, many of them have a ton of previous experience in the industry. They chose voluntarily to leave their big company employees and form their own small indie studio where they get full creative control of the games they want to make.

Indies Very Often Have Tons of Experience

I could list hundreds of indies who have amassed incredible experience in the industry before deciding to go it alone. Just look at the Wii U and 3DS current library of indie games. Take Jools Watsham, for example. He’s been the leader of teams at Iguana/Acclaim, working on franchises like Turok and NBA Jam. But he decided he’d much rather leave and make his own studio, Renegade Kid. We owe him thanks for games like Mutant Mudds and Dementium. We’ll speak a bit more about his upcoming mystery game for Wii U (holiday season) in my next article, The 50+ Wii U Games We’re Most Excited For, with an exclusive quote we got from him especially for the article. (Hint: It’s an atmospheric FPS.)

wii u eshop

A few others:

- Fuzzy Wuzzy Games, bringing Armillo to Wii U very soon, is made up of ex-EA and Radical Games staff.

- Wayforward Technologies, of Mighty Switch Force and Shantae fame, are led by John Beck and Matt Bozon- both of whom have been working in the industry since the SNES days

- Tomorrow Corportation, who developed Little Inferno, is made up of Kyle Gabler and Kyle Gray, both of whom had experience at EA

- Two Tribes, bringing Toki Tori 2 to Wii U, has worked with major video game companies including Capcom, Nokia, Team17 and THQ

- Shin’en, who brought Nano Assault Neo to Wii U, has an assortment of staff from across the industry- some making games since the 80′s

Of course, there are also many talented indies who built up from scratch, starting off with smaller games until they had enough experience to make their magnus opum. Just look at Edmund McMillen (Super Meat Boy) and Terry Cavanagh (VVVVVV). But, with many big publishers and game studios closing their doors for good or laying off staff after a single flop, more and more developers are realizing they can do it by themselves with a few other staff to join their team. The options for funding have also grown. There are already a number of exciting projects on their way to Wii U because of Kickstarter. Others have realized that releasing games digitally doesn’t contain the same expenses as retail does. There are no physical boxes that require a publishing deal to help publish and ship to stores.

Nintendo Opens the Door to Indies by Lightening the Requirements

wii u dev kit

Dev Kits for the approved developers

Even more encouraging: according to Nintendo’s latest shift in policy, it’s easier than ever to become an approved developer for the Wii U and 3DS eShop. What are the requirements?

1) You must have released at least one game in the past. Unproven teenagers without even a single game in their resume need not apply. But if you’re not using Wii U as your guinea pig to learn programming, you’re already good to go.

2) You must have registered yourself with the government as a business for tax purposes.

3) You’ll need to pay for a dev kit to work on. This doesn’t cost a tremendous amount but it does help to filter out the little kids who’ve made a Flash game online and now want to randomly publish their casual games on Wii U or 3DS.

Once you’ve proven to Nintendo that you believe in your product enough to pay a bit of money to buy a dev kit, you’ve had a bit of experience in the past, and you’ve registered yourself as a business (an absolutely simple bit of bureaucracy that anyone can do if they chose to) then you’re ready to submit yourself as a developer to Nintendo and get approval. What many might not realize is that until last month there used to be a fourth restriction which Nintendo is now dropping. In the past you had to have a registered place of work (an office) that is exclusively used for your business. This was a big hurdle for many developers. Thinking back to when I watched Indie Game: The Movie,  I don’t think Edmund McMillen of Team Meat was working in a rented office space. It looked more like it was in his own bedroom.

I know personally of some famous indie developers that had this hurdle with Nintendo’s restriction, but I won’t name them without their permission. Whatever the case, it’s nice to know Nintendo has made it even easier to become an approved developer. But, once again I’m digressing from my main point which is to focus on the indies who are taking advantage of the Wii U’s innovation. Although the Wii U isn’t receiving enough love from big publishers who are not doing enough with the potential of the Wii U (exception: Ubisoft, you still have my appreciation for ZombiU), indies are really stepping up to the plate to fill in the void.

Maestro Interactive Brings Innovation to Wii U With Three New Games

maestro interactive

There’s one example I’d like to give of a developer who really gets Wii U. They are called Maestro Interactive and they’re bringing three games to Wii U. *audience applause*

This is the kind of developer that gets me excited about the buzz Wii U is creating for indies inasmuch as it’s lacking the buzz with massive third-party developers. Maestro Interactive is located in Austin, Texas, the same place as Retro Studios. The founder of Maestro, Monty Goulet, actually worked with Retro Studios on Donkey Kong Country Returns. Monty served as a leading member of the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and he created many of the tools used in the organization. Monty also served as President of a Recording Studio, a Live Sound Engineer for Jazz Fest, and Chief Engineer of an internet radio station.

At one point, Retro Studios contracted Monty, using him to implement the audio in Donkey Kong Country Returns. When his contract for the game was finished, Monty developed his own sound design studio MGGSound, and along with that he formed his game studio, Maestro Interactive. Of course, the studio is made up of talented programmers and artists, but with a musician as its creative lead there’s a very strong focus on the audio experience and the artistry inherent in the game experience. From what I’ve heard of his compositions so far I’m somewhat reminded of David Wise, who was the prolific composer at Rareware back in the SNES and N64 era.

Post-Retro Studios, Maestro Creates a Port of Upcoming Super Ubi Land for Wii U

retro studios wii u

Having a positive experience working on Donkey Kong Country Returns at Retro Studios, Monty was very interested in pursuing development for his indie studio on the Wii U. The first opportunity came knocking when Monty played Super Ubi Land by Notion Games and was reminded of 2D retro platformers like Super Mario World, Kirby’s Dream World, and Donkey Kong Country. Ever the Donkey Kong fan, Monty began discussion with Notion Games over porting the in-development game to Wii U. (Kudos to Emily Rogers for getting Notion Games on board with Nintendo.) Offering advice and suggestions based on his own experience in the industry, Super Ubi Land was improved upon further and enhanced in a way that would fully take advantage of the Wii U. You’ll like the game if any of these elements mean something to you:

- a masterful soundtrack built by a studio who cherishes the audio experience of a game

- 2D retro platforming that plays like a love letter to Donkey Kong Country and similar classics

- massive boss battles

- hand-drawn graphics

Notion-Games-620x480

You can get an idea of the game in trailer below, although the game’s look has been improved upon to take advantage of the Wii U.

Their Magnum Opus, Fade Into Darkness

All this was just a prelude to Maestro Interactive’s own ambitions. Maestro wasn’t founded just to remain a contractor, but to realize their own vision. This brings us to Fade Into Darkness, which is one of those games I mentioned is taking advantage of the Wii U’s strengths. If I had to give an example to understand the gameplay you can imagine a mix between the atmospheric exploration and puzzle solving of Myst with a horror theme that will remind you of Amnesia. Take that combination and throw in an innovative focus on auditory gameplay and you’ll understand Fade Into Darkness a bit more.

fade into darkness

In Fade Into Darkness you play as a child who discovers his parents have left him a note saying he must stay put in his locked room as Mom and Dad go in search of help. They warn that there’s a terrible creature roaming their house but it avoids light. As long as he doesn’t leave his well-lit room he should be safe. Being played in first person, the game lets its players immerse themselves in a child’s world all alone. This is a feeling we have all experienced to some degree, but Fade Into Darkness takes our familiarity and flips it on its head, creating a thrilling experience. There’s a very rich and engrossing storyline that you will discover as you make your way from room to room, solving puzzles to illuminate each room you encounter.

Explore a Horror Environment Relying On Your Hearing To Guide You

An protoype build of the game in Unity, later swapped for a stronger engine

A protoype build of the game in Unity, later swapped out for a stronger engine

Since this is an auditory experience where the 3D positional audio actually matters, the rooms will start off dark and you will only have audio cues like music and sound effects to guide you through the room and solve different puzzles. As you discover a bit of light, it will lead you deeper into the puzzle as you continue to explore and eventually completely illuminate the room. But can you imagine what you’ll feel like when it’s pitch black and instead of hearing just the tick tock of a clock, you also hear the growl of a monster slowly approaching from far? The game features a heart-rate system as a health meter, once again relying on audio cues to convey information rather than a visual HUD. As you explore, the frights in your environments may speed up your heart rate and if it reaches a critical point, the game will reset. Faced between insanity and reality, you will often be required to concentrate and distinguish between creatures of darkness and regular environment in order to survive and eventually defeat the darkness. Your environment will come to life with the incredibly rich audio experience.

Exploration, horror, a complex-storyline: all ingredients of an immersive and atmospheric delight for Wii U gamers. But how indeed will it utilize the Wii U’s strengths? One feature in particular hasn’t really been possible on consoles and has been restricted to PC gaming. This is the point-and-click interface on the Wii U’s GamePad that will power much of the exploration and puzzles in the house you explore. Through tapping and dragging on the touch screen you can simulate a mouse-click in the same way it’s been done on an iPad. This is precisely how Nintendo intended to expand the console experiences to include gameplay only found elsewhere until now.

A spiritual successor to Eternal Darkness?

A spiritual successor to Eternal Darkness?

Another way Fade Into Darkness uses the Wii U’s strengths is by utilizing the speaker on the GamePad as well as your TV’s audio to create unique soundscapes and puzzles. For example, sounds coming from objects (or creatures) very close to you may sound like they’re right below your nose. It gives new meaning to positional audio. I can imagine the heart-rate sound would also be coming from the GamePad speaker as opposed to the TV.

Nintendo gamers haven’t had such a unique, deep, and psychological horror game on their systems’ since Eternal Darkness came out on the Gamecube. One thing to note is that the game was originally built in the Unity engine but then Maestro Interactive got a little more ambitious and switched development engines. They couldn’t let it slip to me which engine this would be due to an NDA effective until the official announcement. But, I’m guessing it’s Unreal Engine 3 as no one is usually as strict about such licensing policies as with Unreal Engine 3 but I may be surprised when the name finally gets out. We’ll see more this March when the game is fully revealed at GDC 2013. I’ve only shown one screenshot of the game because the last ones we’ve seen were from GDC 2012 and the game still looked like a Unity-game. Now that it’s been taken to a new level graphically, it wouldn’t be fair to show the old screenshots.

Cosmic Highway – Like F-Zero But With Innovative Use of Sound to Propel Gameplay

cosmic highway wii u

The third Wii U game Maestro are working on is Cosmic Highway. Maestro’s main focus as a developer is to create unique audio experiences in games. Cosmic Highway is no different. You’ve played many racing games before, perhaps. But you’ve never played one that puts such a major emphasis on audio. Think F-Zero, with space racers cruising through 30 different tracks across the galaxy. Each racer will have its own musical style and special abilities. We don’t know all the different ways music and sound effects will affect gameplay but we were given one example.

Each racing track will have its own song. But the music will play with a different musical style according to the racer that’s in first place. So, if you’ve chose the classical racer and you’re in first place, everyone will know you’re in the lead because the soundtrack for the level will be be playing in classical music style. There are to be 180 different songs in the game and you’ll only be able to hear them all if you’re skilled enough to beat the game with every style of racer. There will even be five boss levels to complete. Cosmic Highway will be a game that appeals to both the single-player gamer and the entire family. There is even a five-player split screen mode that can be the life of any party. There will even be a secret world that is meant for Nintendo fans to enjoy. It will have many games that we all recognize from our past.

Maestro’s artist was out of town until tomorrow, Thursday, but we’ll be getting screenshots from him then. So come back to see what it currently looks like. The full game reveal will take place in about a week.

Two Interview Questions about Nintendo for Monty Goulet

wii u indie games

The best part of all this is that Super Ubi Land, Fade Into Darkness, and Cosmic Highway will all be available by the end of Spring 2013, so there’s not long to wait. While most of the information I’ve written until now has come from my correspondence with Monty, I asked him two specific questions not related to his current projects that Nintendo fans would want to know:

NE: Are you allowed to share with us any of your experiences while working together with Retro Studios?

Monty: With regards to Retro, I unfortunately can not disclose really anything due to NDA’s and everything. I can say that these are some of the most talented people to work with, they truly understand the hardware that Nintendo develops and push it to its limits. I mean, it was said in an interview that when they showed their last title (Donkey Kong Country Returns) at E3 in 2010, they had about 70 levels to go. [From what I had seen of the game] that was pretty accurate so that is a testament to how skilled they are as developers.

NE: What do you think of the Wii U as Nintendo’s next-gen system? Does it have a future next to Sony and Microsoft’s next-gen systems? Does the indie-focus help along its success?

Monty: I think the Wii U is a great platform for developers and gamers. Sure, we have the new PS4 being announced tonight, and the Xbox 720 on the horizon, but the early adopters of the next generation will have more to look forward to from Nintendo than the other consoles. I mean, from a sales standpoint people complained that the Wii U sold roughly 60,000 in January. While that is a low number, its not bad necessarily. They have sold 3 Million since launch in November. People compared that to Xbox sales this past month, but the Xbox is a six-seven year old console retailing for much lower now- it balances out for Nintendo.

The issue with publishers pulling out is simply cash flow. They see that there is a small user base on the console, so they pull exclusivity like in the Rayman incident and try to reach a larger market. This isn’t always a smart play. If you look at Epic Mickey, it was on one platform, the Wii and sold 1.3 Million copies, whereas the sequel was on all the platforms and sold around a little over a third of that with 529,000 copies across three platforms. I think exclusivity to one platform helps move console sales and brings more gamers to the platform. That is why it is such a great idea to bring Indie teams to the Wii U to build for it. The more titles Indies bring to the console, the more people will play and buy a Wii U.

iOS has a great interface for their store that Nintendo seems to have emulated quite well, but Apple’s problem is that anyone can build on it…You have companies like GameSalad that are drag and drop for the phone and while some great games come out of those engines, you also get a lot of- as Reggie of Nintendo put it- “Garage Developers”, which hurts the platform in the end. Nintendo still limits the engines that the console can use, Unreal 3, Havok and Unity (in the near future), all of which are professional engines so everyone can expect high quality in the content on the eShop, something Apple can not do. I do like that you can patch and update your games for free on Nintendo’s platform, something FEZ found out the hard way could not be done on XBLA. Only time will tell however how much of a success the shop is for indies, when more developers titles get on the shop and competition grows.

Thanks to Monty Goulet and Maestro Interactive for sharing some of the under-wraps information on their games. And thanks to Emily Rogers for her valuable input into the current Nintendo – indie studio relationship. Keep informed of Maestro’s latest updates:

Website: http://maestrointeractivegames.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/maestro_igames

Mailing List: http://maestrointeractivegames.com/Contact_Us.html

Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/user/MaestroInteractive

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/MaestroInteractiveGames

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Read my last article, Everything We Know About Super Smash Bros Wii U/3DS if you haven’t already, and stay tuned for my next article on Sunday, 50+ Upcoming Wii U Games That We’re Excited For. It will be filled with exclusive goodies so make sure not to miss it!

Written by Menashe Kestenbaum

Menashe Kestenbaum

Over the past two years, Menashe has emerged as one of the foremost thought-leaders in the gaming industry with a fresh perspective on how gaming communities can be developed and nurtured. He is the owner of the Enthusiast Media Network and all its enthusiast sites.